The fashion these days is to treat creative collaboration in the way that medieval dynasties treated royal marriage: Take one thing you like, add another thing you like, and what you are supposed to get is something doubly-awesome. However, the truth is that some creative marriages result in nothing more than the artistic equivalent of Prince Charles: Grotesquely ugly and malformed creatures that have nothing to offer but the weight of their genetic pedigrees.
Though by no means as hideous as Charles Windsor, I have never been entirely convinced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. FilmJuice have my review of Solaris, which was released this week on Blu-ray.
Historically, my problem with the film has always been that while Tarkovsky seemed quite happy to strip out the novel’s engagement with the idea that it might be impossible to achieve meaningful communication with alien species, he struggled to find anything to replace it beyond some rather hand-wavy comments about guilt, memory and the power of obsession. This viewing of the film allowed me to move beyond that assessment and appreciate a lot of the things the film does right (it’s quite a lengthy review) but I think Solaris’ relative lack of success actually tells us quite a bit about Tarkovsky’s methods and what type of material works best with those methods:
Tarkovsky himself described the film as an artistic failure because it failed to escape the limits of genre in the same way as Tarkovsky’s later Stalker developed beyond the limits of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. While Stalker remains a beautiful and thoughtful work of science fiction, it is hard to disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment.
The problem is that though Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, his genius lay not in directly approaching specific ideas but in orbiting those ideas and inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions through the careful placement of imagery and references. On a purely practical level, ideas that audiences winkle out for themselves tend to have a lot more impact than ideas that are dumped in their laps. On a more theoretical level, requiring audiences to do some work for themselves means that every vision of Tarkovsky’s films is different and exquisitely personal to the person who first beheld it.
Despite being the only Tarkovsky film to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Solaris feels like a minor Tarkovsky as the juxtaposition of ideas and images is forced to play second fiddle to the kind of dialogue-based exposition that is common in both written and filmed science fiction. The Tarkovsky films we create in our own heads will always be more satisfying than the Tarkovsky films that exist on the screen and Solaris is a less satisfying and engaging film because Tarkovsky gives his audience less space in which to construct their own interpretations.